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Hough Requiem: sacred made secular

Hough's piece was written to accompany the show "The Sacred Made Real," now at the National Gallery.

More and more, concert presenters are exploring ways of introducing visual components to musical presentations. Stephen Hough’s “Requiem aeternam,” which had its first American performance at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday night, offered a variant on the theme: a work of music composed to accompany art. London’s National Gallery commissioned the piece to respond to the show “The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture, 1600-1700,” devoted to paintings and life-size polychrome statues made to be carried through the streets during Passion Week; that show has now come to the National Gallery, and Hough’s piece -- part of it illustrated, during Sunday’s performance, with images from the show -- came along with it.

Hough is best known as a concert pianist, and a smart thinker and writer (he received a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “genius grant,” in 2001). He appears to have taken the commission not simply as an excuse to make his own music, but as a way to examine how to nudge an old tradition gently into the present, reflecting the way the old sculptures remain part of a living religious practice. (This point about the sculptures was underlined in a film about the show that opened the concert, in part because Hough’s work needed to be seen in the context of the show and in part because on its own it wasn’t long enough to fill out a whole evening.)
(read more after the jump)

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Old tradition, in Hough’s piece, is represented by the 1605 Requiem by the Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria. Hough took five of the work’s movements and transcribed, translated, transformed them for a string sextet. Stripping the piece of its texts, and thus of its specifically religious context, was a thoughtful echo of the secularizing process of displaying religious art works in a museum show: their aesthetic value, rather than their religious value, being in this context of primary importance to most of the show’s viewers. The difference is that it’s impossible to see the works in the show without being caught up in the intended religious expression, but the musical lines in Hough’s piece, still clearly vocal in origin, had lost their words forever.

The more literal movements, therefore, conveyed a sense of backward-looking homage, slightly distanced from the original by the change in medium or (in the second movement, Kyrie) changes in voicing that set the voices against each other at unexpected octaves. The third and fifth movements, however (Graduale and Libera me) are more Hough’s own. In practice, this meant music taking baby steps into a style nearer our own - baby steps being the unit of distance seemingly measured by the episodic changing of moods in the music, which kept stopping and starting up again with a new idea: now sustained chords, like breath, underlying a wistful and slightly Sephardic-sounding viola melody; now lines of plucked strings (pizzicato); now an aggressive biting sequence of sounds invoking the idea of flagellation.

In taped remarks played for the audience and transcribed in the program, Hough acknowledged the difficulty of not wanting the music to get in the way of the paintings, but not wanting it to become merely background music, either. “Requiem aeternam” was certainly written, though, as functional music: music for a purpose, to accompany a show, and, in this performance, to go along with projected images of the luminous sculptures, suffering and flecked with painted blood, in the third and fourth movements. It was, indeed, an interesting musical commentary on the works: a kind of catalogue essay for string sextet. Whether it is even intended to have a life apart from that function is open to question, but it is in many ways a lovely thing to listen to.

I’d be interested in hearing about others’ experiences of musical works or performances that were successfully accompanied, or even enhanced, by visual images.

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By Anne Midgette  |  April 6, 2010; 8:30 AM ET
Categories:  Washington , local reviews  | Tags: MacArthur Fellows Program, National Gallery, National Gallery of Art, Stephen Hough, Tomas Luis de Victoria  
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This is such a great story! A few years ago (like 2007), Thomas Dixon Tyler led the choir and orchestra of Historic Shiloh Church on P Street in performance of Handel's Messiah, that was staged with costumes and movement. I had read about organizations in Europe staging oratorios, but had not seen it for myself. The Shiloh presentation was quite moving. This past year, they sang Messiah with glorious images projected on the walls of the sanctuary. It was so effectively, especially in the final chorus 'Worthy is the Lamb that was Slain."

Patrick D. McCoy
Kennedy Center Examiner

Posted by: liberace06 | April 6, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

A very well versed and thought out review of my friend Stephen's new work. Stephen is so very gifted in many areas of life and art, that this comes of no surprise to see what he has done in his own voice.
In your question of music accompanying, or reflecting visual images, in the late 1980s, I recorded a private copy of several movements from Michel Michelet's 'Visions of Modern Art', which are based on moder artists' work, akin to the Mussorgsky 'Pictures at an Exhibition'. Michelet, whose name was Mikhail Levine, changed his name to Michel Michelet during Hitler's takeover in Paris. He wrote many film scores, but also piano works, Preludes dedicated to Heinrich Neuhaus, and other works. Slava Rostropovich performed some of Michelet's works as well. There may be a professional recording of his 'Visions of Modern Art', not sure. But will explore that, now that we have global resources via the web. Michel Michelet lived much of his older life in Hollywood.

Posted by: JBiegel | April 7, 2010 10:00 PM | Report abuse

However widely spread, a peculiar way of thinking about the nature of music, though. Is it 'sacred' because you or the composer says so? Why not let yourself as a listener decide what the notes mean to you, indifferent to categorising and labelling?
De Vittorias Requiem has been dear to me already for a long time. As a secular humanist I don't mind the words at all, just respect them, having their justification in the origin of the work and the more limited choices of the composer at the time. Why bother? Hail to the composer, but no less to the listener, lover and interpreter of music.
(This doesn't mean of course that I am not curious to listen to the work Stephen Hough has done!).
Casper Vogel
The Netherlands

Posted by: vogel142 | April 8, 2010 6:52 AM | Report abuse

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